Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm

Elijah Ba'al Shem of Chelm

Elijah Ba'al Shem (d. 1583) was a Polish rabbi who studied under Rabbi Solomon Luria and later became the Chief Rabbi of Chełm. He was a co-signer of the Agunah laws and, according to legend, was able to create a Golem creature with Kabbalah. Many legends surround his life in regards to this creation. Because of his mastery over the names of God, he was the first Rabbi to be given the Baal Shem title. He was the grandfather of Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi whose son was Jacob Emden.


Born "Eliyahu ben Aharon Yehudah" ("Elijah son of Judah Aaron"), he studied under Rabbi Solomon Luria of Lublin to attain his rabbinical ordination and became Chełm's chief rabbi, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. [ [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=196&letter=K&search=Kholm KHOLM (CHELM)] ] [http://emol.org/kabbalah/seferyetzirah/seferyetzirahtimeline.html Sefer Yetzirah Timeline] ] In 1564, he gathered with other prominent Rabbis, including his teacher, to co-author the "piske denim" (laws) which allowed an Agunah to remarry. [שו"ת ב"ח החדשות, ס' ע"ז] He was an avid practitioner of Kabbalah and was said to have created a Golem using the names of God from the Sefer Yezirah. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=253&letter=E&search=Elijah%20Ba'al%20Shem%20of%20Chełm Rabbi Elijah's Bio] ; Friedberg, Luhot Zikkaron, p. 32, Drohobycz, 1897; Emden, Megillat Sefer, p. 4, Warsaw, 1896; Horodetzky, Kerem Shelomoh, p. 33, Drohobycz, 1896; Ha-Meassef, p. 157, St. Petersburg, 1902.] quorum; Responsa, No. 93, Amsterdam, 1712; Baer Heṭeb to Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 55, 1; [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=334&letter=G#1137 Golem of Hohe Rabbi Löw] ] Trachtenberg, Joshua. "Jewish Magic and Superstition". Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004 (ISBN 9780812218626)] Because of his mastery over the esoteric uses of the names of God, he became the first person to be given the religious title of Baal Shem. [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=15&letter=B Ba’al Shem] ]

His death is closely associated with the Golem myth. One version of it states while trying to remove the name of God (which gave it life) in an attempt to destroy the raging beast, Rabbi Elijah was crushed to death under the weight of the Golem as it fell to pieces. [Kieval, Hillel J. "Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech. Lands." University of California Press; 1 edition, 2000 (ISBN 0-5202-1410-2)] Other sources suggest his face was only scratched and that he seemingly died of natural causes years later. [http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/chelm/che179.html Jewish Life and Work in Chełm] ]

He wrote two books during his life; the "Sefer Mif’alot Elohim" and the "Sefer Toldot adam". [ [http://library.ohio-state.edu/search/o?SEARCH=36961827 Sefer Mif’alot Elohim] ] [ [http://library.ohio-state.edu/search/cBF1622.J45+E65+1994/cbf+1622+j45+e65+1994/-3%2C-1%2C0%2CE/frameset&FF=cbf+1622+j45+e65+1994&1%2C1%2C Sefer Toldot adam] ] Two of Elijah's grandsons were great Halakhists: Tzvi Ashkenazi and his son Jacob Emden. They discussed the legal status of the golem: could the golem be counted in a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for prayer. Human form and modicum of understanding were not enough to make something human. Also, according to Emden, the destructive potential of the golem could destroy the world.


The Golem of Chełm

According to the "Jewish Life and Work in Chełm" chapter of the "Commemoration Book of Chełm (Poland)" (Yisker-bukh Chełm),

"No one was allowed to enter the attic of the Old Synagogue. No one even knew where the key to the attic could be found. One person whispered to another the secret that in the attic there lies the golem of the famous Rabbi Elijah Ba'al Shem.

It was said that Elijah Ba'al Shem created from clay a golem [by means of the Sefer Yetzirah] who would stand on market days with an ax in his hand, and as soon as he saw that a peasant was going to beat up a Jew, the golem killed the peasant.

An entire week the golem served the Rabbi, the Rabbi's wife, and he performed the manual labor in the Beit Hamidrash [A Jewish house of study where the study of the Torah is undertaken] . [ [http://www.yawiktionary.com/b/1148373184971.html Beth Hamridash definition] ]

When the local landowner found out about the golem's might, the Ba'al Shem led the golem to the attic, withdrew from him the ineffable name of God, and converted the golem into a heap of clay. The Ba'al Shem locked the door, took with him the key, and since then the attic remained bolted."

The tale about Elijah's creation of the Golem was retold in the book "Israel der Gotteskampfer der Baalschem von Chełm und sein Golem" ("Israel of the God's camphors of the Baal shem of Chełm and his Golem") written by Chayim Block and published in 1920. [Bloch, Chayim. "Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague". Kessinger Publishing; Reprint edition, 1997 (ISBN 0766101118)]


During Elijah's time, the only road that led to the Jewish cemetery passed directly in front of a Russian church. Whenever a Jewish funeral procession passed by, Christians would come outside to throw rocks and cause trouble. Elijah knew of this and requested in his will that no one move or run away if the Chrisitans did the same following his death.

Elijah's wishes were immediately carried out after his passing. When the procession neared the church, Christians began their ritual of pelting the coffin and it bearers with rocks and insults. But this time, everyone was steadfast and did not attempt to run for shelter. Elijah miraculously pushed open the coffin and, after consulting the Torah that was to be buried with him, the earth opened up swallowing the church and the gentiles whole. The Rabbi then laid back and became rigid as a corpse again. The Jews stared at each other in utter disbelief and eventually continued on their way once they had recovered from the shock. From this time forward, it was said that the local Christians no longer threw rocks during Jewish funerals.

There was a popular legend amongst the classmates of the "Kheder" (Jewish elementary school) of a teacher named Leib Paks that stated if a person went into the cellar and jumped on a certain set of floor boards that the muffled ring of a church bell could be heard. This lead the children to believe their teacher's school was built on the very same spot where the church had sank.


Within the Chełm cemetery, there was a grave without a tombstone which was covered in bricks arranged in the shape of the Hebrew letter "Bet". This was believed to be the final resting place of Rabbi Elijah. Legend has it an angel would appear on the anniversary of his death and etch a letter on a certain brick. Because of this, everyone was afraid to touch the bricks.

German-Jews of Jerusalem and the Crusades

According to Rabbi Elijah, German Jews lived in Jerusalem during the 11th century. The story is told that a German-speaking Palestinian Jew saved the life of a young German man surnamed Dolberger. So when the knights of the First Crusade came to siege Jerusalem, one of Dolberger's family members who was among them rescued Jews in Palestine and carried them back to Worms, Germany to repay the favor. [Seder ha-Dorot", p. 252, 1878 ed.] Further evidence of German communities in the holy city comes in the form of halakic questions sent from Germany to Jerusalem during the second half of the eleventh century. [Epstein, in "Monatsschrift", xlvii. 344; [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=242&letter=J#928 Jerusalem: Under the Arabs] ]


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